We live in an uncommonly beautiful part of the country. Anytime I get the chance to take a drive away from the busy interstates or the sprawling highways, I am in awe of the landscape. And one of my favorite drives has always been the last 20 or so miles of the trip to Amelia Island. That final stretch quickly becomes a two-lane road, winding in between coastal homes and glimmering water. Even if you get caught behind an ambling out-of-towner, the miles fly by when you take in the diverse foliage and the expanse of blue Florida sky.
So when we’re talking restaurants that are “worth the drive,” Amelia Island is a natural choice, since the drive itself is part of the allure. But though the road there is charming, it quickly becomes overshadowed by the excellence of the culinary destination.
Pogo’s Kitchen opened in May of 2018. Though this makes it fairly new to the local restaurant scene, it quickly garnered a reputation for fresh ingredients and innovative dishes from the mind of a talented and experienced chef, Alan Heckman. Chef Alan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has cooked professionally for more than two decades. He’s traveled throughout Europe and Northern Africa, cooked in institutions like Canlis in Seattle, and worked under award-winning chefs like Tom Colicchio. Having joined the team while the restaurant was still in its construction stages, he’s been instrumental to its success.
A brief interruption is necessary to address the matter of the restaurant’s name (primarily because it was part of what charmed me in the first place). Created by cartoonist Walt Kelly, the original Pogo was a possum and the original Pogo’s Kitchen was located in the Okefenokee Swamp. It catered to Kelly’s cast of swamp creatures and its purpose was to let diners get a “speshul meal and discuss life and the wide world beyond.” Though hardly in a swamp, this new Pogo’s Kitchen strives for the same kind of mealtime camaraderie.
The inside of the restaurant is perfectly indicative of this commitment to kinship. Woods in various warm shades, neutral hues, cozy lighting, a lush outdoor patio all lend themselves to an atmosphere that is elegantly casual. Though modern and refined, it isn’t stuffy or intimidating. It’s welcoming and comfortable. Upon attending brunch several weeks after first meeting the team, we found ourselves among large groups of friends all chatting amiably. As we sat in plush chairs and sipped on cocktails, there was an air of familiarity about the space, and it was clear that many of the diners were regulars.
When the restaurant first opened, owners Robert and Wendy Hogan told Chef Alan that they wanted to serve some kind of boiled peanut. As any Southerner will know, the boiled peanut is a delicacy typically served in a styrofoam cup, but the chef and his team had another presentation in mind. The Boiled Peanut Hummus is a staple on the appetizer list (and a personal favorite of mine). Served with grilled naan and garnished with garlic and scallion oil and roasted peanuts, the hummus has subtle but perfectly complementary Asian notes and a whole lot of flavor. You may never again return to the roadside stand approach to the boiled peanut.
Since seafood reigns supreme in our coastal communities, Pogo’s She Crab Soup is a necessity. When it arrives at your table, the dish starts as a crab cake, pickled celery, celery leaves, and smoked trout roe in a large bowl. Then the fresh, creamy soup is poured on top. With the soup poured tableside, this presentation allows you the full aesthetic effect of the delicate cake and its accoutrements. But even with the visual appeal of the dish, the richness of the flavor is what will keep you coming back.
Unsurprisingly, the seafood is what Pogo’s is best known for, but their approach to vegetarian dishes deserves its own time in the spotlight. Too often, vegetarian fare becomes an afterthought to restaurants whose focus is elsewhere. Something is thrown together, or they merely remove the protein from an already-existing dish. Not here. Chef Alan and his team prove that vegetarian dishes can be just as exciting as their carnivore counterparts. Case-in-point? The Mushroom Stroganoff is their most popular dish. Roasted mushrooms, onion cream, and black garlic puree are served over soy campanelle pasta. Earthy and satisfying, the dish has a particular appeal. As Chef Alan puts it, “It’s comforting and simple.”
The mushrooms used in the Mushroom Stroganoff change frequently; Chef Alan works with area foragers to find only the freshest local selections whenever possible. This relationship embodies a foundational commitment to a menu inspired by local ingredients. “Our menu changes a little more than seasonal,” says the chef, “because we always want to be sure to offer the best items available.”
This philosophy extends to the dessert menu, where the selection will please everyone from the sweetest palate to those who prefer something subtle. A lifelong Southerner myself, I give a hearty stamp of approval to Pogo’s miniature Pecan Tart served with ice cream on the side. Typically dangerously sweet, this dainty portion is the perfect size. And if you need a post-dinner pick-me-up, a couple of espresso cocktails from the expertly-crafted bar menu make a perfect pairing for tart.
This is only the first chapter of Pogo’s story, and there’s a bright future ahead. “The restaurant is growing stronger daily, and we did recently receive a Golden Spoon as one of the best new restaurants in Florida,” says Chef Alan. “As with most restaurants, you want to come out of the gate strong. I believe we did that, but the growth we are showing today and the continued push to be excellent is the foundation we are built on. Pogo’s will continue to grow and be a leader in the change of the Amelia Island food scene. We don’t want to be the ‘special occasion’ or ‘too expensive’ place. We want to be the ‘I had the best experience place’ and that means hitting it on all fronts – service, ambiance, and food.”